Ida Tarbell earned a reputation as a muckraker for exposés that resulted in the eventual breakup of the Standard Oil Company.
More than a century later, Sen. Josh Hawley carries more of an establishment aura, with his education at elite universities and experience as a law clerk for the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Both Tarbell and Hawley share a common trait in their skepticism of the leviathan of the day: Standard Oil in 1900 and Big Tech, including Google and Facebook, in 2019.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Hawley turned the focus from the Russia investigation to Big Tech companies and his concerns about anti-competitive conduct, potential bias and privacy violations. Unlike the Mueller report, Hawley finds a more receptive audience on the other side of the aisle. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, hardly a political ally, expressed concern about the “handful of gatekeepers” that control search engines, online commerce and information sharing.
Up until now, Hawley and like-minded lawmakers took aim at relatively low-hanging fruit, like data collection on children.
Bigger issues loom on the horizon, with news that the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have agreed to divide up antitrust scrutiny of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. These tech giants now find themselves in the regulatory crosshairs, with Facebook and Google seen as the most vulnerable to some sort of action.
Few tears will be shed for companies that built up unprecedented influence in culture and politics, making them an easy target of the left and the right. Elected officials and regulators will have to tread carefully between concerns about perceived bias — one person’s political leanings can be another’s free expression — and look to broader issues of market dominance and the way search engine content is prioritized, personal data is collected and online ad revenue is directed primarily to Facebook and Google.
Here Europe’s regulation watchdog — another odd ideological bedfellow for American politicians who decry regulation — has taken a more aggressive role in trying to rein in Big Tech. The European Union recently fined Google for forcing customers to advertise exclusively through its AdSense service.
These are issues Tarbell never encountered with Standard Oil. One new wrinkle is how technology companies offer plenty of shipping, searching and sharing services for free. This is not the normal business model for a monopoly that seeks to squelch competition.
Perhaps regulators and legislative critics will find that free is still too expensive, that these companies exact a heavy price in the way that personal data is collected and shared, often without the knowledge of the end user.